One of the wonderful things about full wine service is the ceremony. And there is no part of full wine service as mysterious as decanting. The decanter itself is an object of beauty, but delicately filled with wine and illuminated by a flame, it becomes awe-inspiring. What kind of arcane ceremony is this? And to what end?
Before we walk you through it, you may find it helpful to understand what are tannins in wine. We’ll explain exactly what a wine decanter is. Then we’ll get into how to decant wine, when you should decant wine, and why you should decant wine. And, finally, how to clean your precious decanter when all is said and done.
What Is a Wine Decanter?
A wine decanter is a separate container, often made of glass or crystal, into which wine is poured for the purpose of increasing the amount of surface area a wine has exposed. This causes the wine to interact with more oxygen than it normally would. The exposure to oxygen amplifies the oxidation process, which softens a wine’s tannins, tempers the medicinal, alcoholic character of a wine’s ethanol, and helps a wine’s sulfur-smelling sulfites evaporate. Many wines taste and smell a lot better after decanting, basically.
You might be thinking, “Wait a minute, you just described a wine glass.” Yes, that’s true. Wine glasses are designed to increase a wine’s surface area. But they’re also designed to politely convey wine into our mouths. A wine decanter takes a glass’s aeration to the next level. Their unique shapes specifically maximize the areas where wine can rush and flow. But that’s not all decanters do.
Wine decanters also make it easier to serve old red wines with sediment without pouring that sediment into a wine glass. For one, wine bottles are often tinted by design to minimize the risk of damage from direct light. But having your wine in a crystal-clear vessel makes it much easier to see the sediment. And secondly, the lip of many decanters is specifically intended to capture sediment during pouring—before it goes overboard.
How to Decant Wine
Learning how to decant wine does two primary things (though there are a few other benefits we’ll touch on later). It aerates wine to enhance its bouquet and flavor profile. And removes the sediment from older red wines, if they have any. To decant wine properly one must know how to use the decanter itself, when to decant wine, and how long to decant wine.
How to Use a Wine Decanter
Wine is typically stored on its side. If there’s any chance the wine you’re about to open and serve has sediment in it, let the wine stand upright for 12–16 hours for the sediment to settle.
Now it’s time to get the wine in the decanter. Depending on the type of wine you’re decanting, you have two routes to take when learning how to use a wine decanter.
Also known as quick splash decanting, this is when the bottle of wine is tipped vertical and poured with the force of gravity into a decanter sitting or being held vertically. The wine hits the bottom of the decanter with force, splashes off the bottom, and swirls around. This is best for young tannic red wines that haven’t been aged for long. Typically less than 2 years. Shock decanting is meant to vigorously expose the wine to oxygen and further accelerate aeration. Shock decanting will not help you isolate sediment. Do not use it for old, mature red wines with sediment on the bottom of the bottle.
This is what most picture when they think of decanting. It involves pouring the wine slowly into the decanter. You can either hold the decanter in one hand and pour with the other or keep the decanter on a flat surface and pour the wine in. Either way, pouring slowly and without much splashing helps fragile, older wines maintain their structure, texture, and color.
It also allows the pourer to spot sediment. And the best way to do that is using only one hand to pour the wine into the decanter and applying a light source to the neck of the bottle as you pour. Keep a lit lighter or match beneath the neck of the bottle and start pouring very slowly when the bottle becomes parallel to the ground. Once the wine lighted by the flame appears dusty, cloudy, or you actually see bits of sediment, you’re done. The decanter doesn’t filter the sediment out. But the process of pouring the wine into the decanter allows you to see the sediment and avoid it. You may have seen sommeliers doing this; it's one of the most noticeable sommelier responsibilities.
How to Decant Wine Without a Decanter
Wine doesn’t necessarily have to be in a decanter to be decanted. It’s the most effective way to decant wines, but there are other methods. Here is how to decant wine without a decanter.
Swish Your Wine Around In the Glass
Because wine glasses are designed to aerate wine, you can usually do a quick-and-dirty decant by pouring wine in a glass, swishing it around a few times, and letting it breathe. For how long you let it breathe depends on the type of wine. That’s covered in the next section.
Use an Aerator
What does a wine aerator do? Well, a wine aerator is a wonderful little wine gadget that forces wine to interact with a pressurized stream of oxygen. It immediately aerates wine and, because of the force of the oxygen stream, also approximates a nice swishing. Aerators not only kickstart the oxidation process, but they also boost the evaporation process. They’re like turbo wine decanters.
Use a Blender
Blasphemy! Yes, this may seem insane. But it works well enough for relatively inexpensive bright, young red wines. Pour them in a blender, turn it on for 15–20 seconds, and you’re good to go. This is more similar to using an aerator than it is to using a decanter, because the movement of the blades accelerates evaporation must like an aerator’s pressurized oxygen. But it will still aerate wine like a decanter—in a pinch. It’s probably best to make this your Plan D.
How Long to Decant Wine
How long to decant wine depends on the type of decanting you’re doing. If you’re shock decanting, most of the benefits of take place instantly upon pouring the wine into the decanter and giving it a good swirl. Feel free to enjoy the wine after only a few minutes in the decanter, up to about 15–20 minutes. Longer than that isn’t really necessary. If you’re decanting older reds in the traditional manner, ideal decanting is anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours.
Here’s a helpful list of wine types and how long to decant wine. It’s in line with what most people do. It’s based on regular decanting, not shock decanting. Feel free to experiment with the times, though! How long to decant wine is not set in stone, and the important part is that you end up with a wine you enjoy.
How Long to Decant Red Wine
Do You Decant White Wine?
White wines don’t usually need to be decanted. And the same goes for rosé. Decanting can upset otherwise okay white wines. The only time to decant a white is if the wine smells off, like eggs or a burnt match. Then it’s okay to decant a white wine or a rosé for about 15 minutes.
When to Decant Wine
There are four main instances when to decant wine:
- Decant wine when enjoying an older red wine with sediment on the bottom so the sediment can be removed
- Decant younger red wines that need their tannic structure mellowed
- Decant (and this is rare) white wines and rosés that have been reduced, or have lost their original bouquet and flavor profile
- When you need to bring a red wine temperature up from its storage temperature to its serving temperature (see our wine storage guide for more details)
Why Decant Wine?
Why use a wine decanter? Well, you should decant wine for a variety of reasons, five to be precise. We’ve already covered the primary two. Those are aeration and sediment removal. Here’s a breakdown of every purpose a decanter serves, no matter how uncommon that wine decanter purpose may be.
- Aeration. Either a shock decant or a normal decant will accelerate oxidation and evaporation, two chemical processes that enhance the desirable flavors and scents of wine.
- Sediment removal. As red wines mature, tannin molecules form into long chains and weigh themselves down to the bottom of the bottle forming sediment. Decanters help identify and avoid pouring them.
- To correct reduced white wines. Some whites can smell of sulfur upon opening the bottle and a vigorous splash decant and 15 minutes in a decanter can temper that characteristic of their bouquet.
- To warm up wine. Some wines may come out of storage a few degrees below their recommended serving temperature. Which is why many wine collectors use dual-zone refrigerated wine storage cabinets. A few minutes in a decanter raises a wine’s temperature a few degrees.
- Because decanting is beautiful. Witnessing the economy of an expert decanter’s movements is impressive on its own. But the crystal and glass decanters being used are works of art themselves. And that’s to say nothing of the way the color of the wine shines through the vessel. The whole process is a wonderful expression of a rich and lively tradition. One which is covered on master sommelier exams and in most sommelier classes.
You know how and why to use a wine decanter. Now on to what is surely the most fun part of decanting: cleaning the decanter!
How to Clean a Wine Decanter
Cleaning decanters is a challenge because of their shape and the fact that cleaning agents can stubbornly stick around and affect the next wine being decanted.
That’s why the best way to clean a wine decanter is to let heat and water do the work for you. Soak your decanter in warm to hot water, depending on the amount of wine stains. Once the wine stains have been loosened from the initial soak, rinse the decanter with warm water to know it all loose. Repeat rinsing until you’re satisfied.
If you have a particularly hard-to-reach area of your decanter, decanter cleaning beads may do the trick. They’re small stainless steel balls you had to your decanter and gentle swirl to scrape any stains and solids off the inner reaches of the decanter.
That’s Why We Decant
Very few things in this world are both lovely and useful. Decanting is one of those things. It helps wines become better versions of themselves, and it captures the lore and mystery of wine in just a few quick movements. It's not just more wine tasting terms. Spend some time browsing decanters online and you’ll probably fall in love with one. Some look like swans or ducks, and others like raindrops or French horns. Pick one up and see for yourself how it elevates every aspect of your wine experience. And even if you don’t use it, it’s a great display piece.